Commission falls silent on jail

Jeremy Styron

A proposal birthed by the jail study committee to construct a standalone facility at Centre 75 in Loudon died last week for lack of a motion during the regular commission meeting.

About 10 residents spoke during the meeting against the County Corrections Partnership Committee’s recommendation to build a new 350-bed jail with accommodations for Loudon County Sheriff’s Office, courtrooms and court clerk space and attorney offices all under one roof.

Former Loudon Mayor Judy Keller told commission that while she thought the county had a “moral obligation” to mitigate the inmate overcrowding problem, she was concerned about how a jail at Centre 75, which is within city limits, might negatively impact business downtown.
Greer’s Home Furnishings owner Bo Carey largely concurred with those sentiments.
In a rare move, Commissioner David Meers stepped out of his seat to speak during the public comment period, noting that he had talked with other business owners who expressed misgivings about a jail located in Loudon.
“I’m just telling you what I have sit down and talked with individuals about that have that day-to-day experience,” Meers said. “They will see these business and other businesses within the city of Loudon that will be hurt tremendously.”
He said a thriving business sector was important for the sustainability of the downtown area.
“I’m no economist, and I don’t know — I can’t tell you about the future, but if you do not have a vibrant business within the city, everything is going go south, and as a result, are we going to be setting up the city of Loudon for a future tax increase?” Meers asked. “Possibly so.”
Meers then turned to Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw and admonished county officials to at least help with ongoing security concerns at the jail and in court.
“Let’s resolve this issue within the next 45 days,” Meers said. “If we need to add officers for safety, let’s do it and move on.”
Ninth Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson told commission during the official presentation of the jail committee’s recommendation that law enforcement and court officials were already taking numerous steps to mitigate inmate overcrowding, including issuing citations when possible and reducing bonds.
“We do that on a daily basis to keep the population as low as it is,” Johnson said. “Today, it’s at 142 inmates in a 91-bed facility, which is 1 ½ times the allowed amount. It generally runs that large a population all the time, and that is the primary concern.”
Addressing questions about how a jail at Centre 75 might impact business in the downtown area, he said he has been a property owner in Loudon for more than 25 years, so any negative consequences will likewise affect him.
“Would it take business away from downtown Loudon? Possibly so,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how many of those guys and women in jumpsuits and shackles are going to go buy furniture or ice cream or food or what not. I know it’s been a concern for businesses when we’ve got grand jury days and jury impaneling days because there’s no parking downtown, so it surprises me somewhat to hear now that there are some problems.”
Committee members have also considered upgrading the current Justice Center at the corner of Highway 11 and Sugarlimb Road, and potential projects have varied in cost from $16 million to $24 million.
Johnson said the $31 million plan looks 40 years down the road and includes room for a future expansion.
“This proposal is a long-range proposal; it’s not a short-term fix,” he said. “It’s not a Band-Aid. A $16 million jail to me is a Band-Aid. You’re still going to have to deal with the justice system aspect of it being in four or five different places.”
Echoing his sentiments from previous meetings, Russell again urged commission to consider implementing an in-jail drug treatment and therapy program to address the underlying causes of nonviolent, drug-related crimes.
“That’s the biggest problem in Loudon County right now,” Johnson said about the drug epidemic. “That’s why we’re here tonight.”
Sheriff Tim Guider said the current Justice Center does not have classroom facilities, which would be required to hold in-jail treatment and educational programs.
Guider said his main concerns were for officer safety and getting inmates and the court systems all in one place to cut down on prisoner movements between facilities.
“This is not something that needs to go any further as the general said, and I think some other people have said,” Guider said. “We need to make a move on this thing one way or another.”
Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson asked for a motion on the jail committee’s recommendation to build a $31 million facility at Centre 75, but multiple requests were met with silence, and the proposal ultimately failed. Commissioners Leo Bradshaw, Bill Satterfield and Henry Cullen serve on the jail committee.
Commissioner Kelly Littleton-Brewster asked Guider to attend the county board’s next workshop to discuss officer safety and potential staffing solutions while the county continues working toward a more concrete solution for the jail and inmate overcrowding. The workshop is set for 6 p.m. Sept. 19 at the county office building.